March 6, 2005
© 2005, J.W. Carter
If you were to walk the streets of Jerusalem in Jeremiah's time, and interview its citizens, you could easily come away with the impression that there are a religious and pious people. The ancient Jews based their security in (1) their Abrahamic ancestry, and (2) their adherence to the tenets of the Law of Moses. Their more orthodox citizens went to great details to dress in the accepted religious traditional manner, to wear the phylacteries, tassels, and other icons of their religion. It was very important to "look" religious, both in the way that they dressed and in the way that they acted. However, a cursory understanding of God's plan of salvation clearly reveals that salvation come from faith in Him, without regard as to whether the individual lived prior to or after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. The New Testament book of Hebrews, in chapter 11, illustrates this axiom as the writer lists many of the Old Testament patriarchs who demonstrated their faith in God. By insisting upon their salvation based upon their ancestry and the keeping of their traditions, they left out the very basis of their calling from God: to turn to Him in committed faith. According to their ancient formula, faith in God was not a necessity. Without faith in God, the people attempted to practice their religion without the power of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, over the years they rejected the message of the few righteous kings and the teaching of the prophets who would have led them to faith.
A religion that has a basis without true faith lacks the true power of the Holy Spirit. Without such power, the church is reduced to a social club with a religious theme. Such a church has little or no power to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ, and exists only to satiate the rationalizations and base desires of its members as they play the church game. The fall to apostasy of the ancient Jews is not a relic of the past. We can observe the pattern of their fall and use it as a measure of the state of the church today. If we do so with brutal honesty we may come out of the observation with the realization that much of today's church has lost its power to impact the world for very similar reasons. We, like the ancient Jews, may be guilty of "playing church." We may be going through the motions, assured that we always act like and look like a church, but in reality we find no real power. Our congregation ages, people are not coming to Christ. People are not drawn. Jesus promised that people will be drawn when He is lifted up (John 12:32). However, many of our churches today only give lip service to Jesus, preferring to focus on meeting their own social needs and desires. Such churches are often under the lordship of one or a few church leaders who, despite their sincerity, dictate their own position on what the church should be, a position that usurps the Holy Spirit's power to speak through the church membership. Such churches are characterized by frequent strife or controversy, and the repeated exodus of its active members. Some churches, like the ancient Jews, hold to a religion of legalism and appearance, placing more importance on their traditional rules and church dogma than upon faith in God. These churches set themselves against the modern culture they are called to impact. They build walls of protection and shun the "worldly" culture they are immersed in while its members dive fully into it when outside of the church's view. The church today has much to learn from the example of the experience of the ancient Jews.
Run ye to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and see now, and know, and seek in the broad places thereof, if ye can find a man, if there be any that executeth judgment, that seeketh the truth; and I will pardon it.
In the previous chapter, Jeremiah outlined the fall of the nation of Judah into apostasy, paralleling its demise with that of the previous fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. In the verses to follow, Jeremiah points out in some detail a list of sins that have contributed to the fall. In this first verse we almost see an exact parallel of God's words to Abraham when he interceded on the behalf of Sodom (Gen. 18:23 ff.) By the time of this writing the influence of Josiah has been lost in the land. There was little, if any, evidence of true faith in God left. As one would walk the streets one would not find a single truly righteous person. Jerusalem probably would not have looked at all like Sodom and Gomorrorah to the undiscerning eye as one would witness the scurrying around of those who "looked" righteous based upon their clothing, their language, and their public piety. However, Jeremiah, who clearly hears God's word, is seeing beneath the facade of appearance and into the hearts of the people.
God's promise to Judah in this one verse is similar to that which took place when Abraham interceded for Sodom. As Jeremiah prophesied the demise of the kingdom, the dialogue starts with a promise of salvation: if a single righteous man can be found, the nation will be saved. Does this mean that there is no righteous man in Jerusalem? If there are any, they cannot be found. The righteous remnant, if it exists at all, has no influence in the city. They are not stepping forward and exposing the sin of their peers. Even Jeremiah has no real influence, for if he had, the people would have listened to him and the nation would have been saved.
What can being about such a fall? How can people who look righteous, speak righteous words, and on the surface appear so religious fall into such a level of apostasy? In the verses that follow, Jeremiah points out some specific characteristics of the nation that have brought about its downfall.
And though they say, The LORD liveth; surely they swear falsely.
I have actually stopped a hymn in the middle of a verse to ask the congregation if they really believe what they are singing. I was once braced by the deacons for breaking a church rule: as a minister of music I had the audacity to quote a scripture verse from the podium (Acts 1:8). I was told in a deacon's meeting that if I quoted a verse again from the pulpit I would be fired, for that was the Pastor's job, not mine. These people do not come to the church to worship God, but rather to exercise their own need for social significance and control.
In just a few words, Jeremiah brings a tremendous indictment against the nation. With their words, they proclaim the living God, but in their hearts they could really care less. In their zeal to keep the commandments, they may have removed the vowels from the written name of God, but by turning to secular and pagan gods, they gave God no power in their own lives. In this way, they truly took the name of the Lord in vain. It is probably no coincidence that Jeremiah lists this transgression first among many, for it alone provides an explanation for the sins to follow. The people express the form of religion, but lack its power, an indictment similar to that brought by Paul as he encouraged Timothy (1 Tim. 3:5), who was called to serve a problematic congregation in Ephesus.
Vain worship still exists today. As a minister of music I have been called upon to lead our congregations in worship, and often come away from the experience with some disappointment and frustration. Rather then witnessing people pouring out their heart to the Lord they love, I tend to see many more who are just going through the motions, critical of the pastor's preaching acumen, and looking at the clock to see when the service will be over so they can get on with their lives. Some approach the worship service, not to worship, but to be entertained, judging the service by how much they "enjoyed it." It is as if the purpose of the worship service is to serve them, rather than to serve God.
The ancient Jew were great at "going through the motions." They developed their own religious practices and traditions that were free from God's interference. They were free to declare themselves sons of the God of Abraham and then worship Baal under the trees. This is not unlike those today who appear in attendance at a weekly church service, and then leave to live a secular life with no concern about God at all.
O LORD, are not thine eyes upon the truth? thou hast stricken them, but they have not grieved; thou hast consumed them, but they have refused to receive correction: they have made their faces harder than a rock; they have refused to return.
The spiritual disobedience of the Jews was not attained in a vacuum. The history of the Jewish people was characterized by a continual cycle of renewal, rebellion, and salvation. The cycle was fueled by their continually crying out to God following the experiences that were consequences of their sin. We see this cycle completed several times during the time of the judges when God would raise up a judge to deliver the people after they had turned their backs on God. When the children of Israel turned from God, they experienced his judgment and cried for redemption. Their ultimate rebellion came when the people demanded a from the prophet Samuel the appointment of a "king like the other nations." Samuel immediately prophesied the error of such a choice as he described the bondage, war, and judgment that such a choice would engender. The bondage came under the third king, Solomon when he conscripted the people to work on his building projects. It was that bondage that ultimately split the nation into two kingdoms when Solomon's son chose to increase the burden of bondage on the people. From that point on, every king of Israel took the people further from God until the nation was destroyed by Assyria. The Judean kingdom continued the cycle of rebellion and renewal when some of its kings sought to return the nation to the worship of Jehovah. However, by the time of Jeremiah's writing, the last attempt by Josiah to restore the kingdom to God had long been forgotten. The kings had all but destroyed the Davidic line, and there was no desire for repentance to be found anywhere in the city of Jerusalem. The nation, like the previous northern kingdom of Israel, had now devolved to a state of utter apostasy. They had totally and without impunity rejected the voice of God. They placed their security in their ancestry and their law while they practiced the sensual religious rites and traditions of their pagan neighbors. There would be no repentance from a people who had no idea that they were in need of it.
One of the greatest barriers to the gospel today is ignorance. People must understand their lost state before they perceive a need to be found. Many in our churches today who live lives that are uncommitted to Christ experience a similar ignorance. Is such ignorance an excuse?
Therefore I said, Surely these are poor; they are foolish: for they know not the way of the LORD, nor the judgment of their God. 5I will get me unto the great men, and will speak unto them; for they have known the way of the LORD, and the judgment of their God: but these have altogether broken the yoke, and burst the bonds.
Jeremiah's tender heart is exposed in his response to the indictment against the nation. "Surely," he states, these people are innocent of the charges because of their ignorance. They are poor and unlearned and they follow after the Baals because they do not know any better. It is the great and learned men, the priests and the princes and the kings who know God's law and should be seeking after God's heart. "I will speak unto them." However, it is those who do know better, those who have been given the authority and responsibility to lead the poor and foolish in righteousness who have fully broken the relationship between the nation and God. It is those leaders who are the ones with the stone faces. It is they who think that they are great and important men, the ones who make the decisions for others, who have in their self-defined righteousness blasphemed against the One Holy God. Speaking to them will not sway them.
Likewise the sincere serpents who run some churches today will not listen. When encountering a pastor who brings the truth, the unrepentant church leadership moves to terminate his "employment." So, the pastor moves on in hopes of finding a congregation whose faces are not "harder than a rock." Because of this pervading pattern, the average tenure of pastors in congregationally governed churches is now less than three years.
Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the evenings shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities: every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces: because their transgressions are many, and their backslidings are increased.
Though some have attempted to argue that the three predators that come to destroy the unrepentant nation are literal animals, the historical context implies that the predator is Babylon. The three animals that are mentioned are each known for some unique characteristics. The lion was respected for its great strength and was often included in icons and symbols to reflect that attribute upon the one bearing the image. The wolf was known for its cunning and brutal destruction of its prey. The leopard was a symbol of grace and speed. These are certainly characteristics of the Babylonian attack that was about to come. It would be strong, brutal, and swift, and unlike the previous attacks on Judah that were limited to conquering Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar would overwhelm all of Judah, attacking and conquering all of its cities.
How shall I pardon thee for this? thy children have forsaken me, and sworn by them that are no gods: when I had fed them to the full, they then committed adultery, and assembled themselves by troops in the harlots’ houses. 8They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbour’s wife. 9Shall I not visit for these things? saith the LORD: and shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?
When one turns from God, immorality follows. The pagan worship of Baal and Asherah was grossly immoral even to our modern sensibilities. Baal and Asherah were, respectively, the male and female fertility gods. Pagan belief held that it was through their sexual relations that the land, cattle, and people would find fertility. Worship of these gods was held upon "high places," "under trees" (or under the Asherah pole) and took the form of prostitution. The pagans believed that such open sexual practices would inspire the gods to copy their behavior, assuring fertility in the land. It is likely that, since this practice had been prevalent for so long that, by the time of the fall of Israel and Judah, the people had little knowledge or concern for the background for their accepted immoral behavior.
Once such a practice became common and accepted, what could naturally follow but adultery? Jeremiah uses the metaphor of animals calling out for mates as the Jews had become so entrenched in their immorality that adultery became commonplace and acceptable. The nation committed adultery against God when it broke the bonds of its covenant and went after other gods, and the people then committed adultery among themselves as the bonds of the marriage covenant were likewise discarded.
God has made His point, even within the limited logic of human reasoning. God's justification for taking action should be evident even to the people who will experience its consequences.
Go ye up upon her walls, and destroy; but make not a full end: take away her battlements; for they are not the LORD’S.
The command of God is now directed toward those whom God is calling upon to exercise His judgment. Despite the depth of rebellion to which the nation has fallen, as God calls for its destruction, the calamity will not result in a "full end." God's promise that the people would inherit the land was predicated upon their obedience, and now by their disobedience they are about to lose it. However, God's promise to Abraham that through him the world would be blessed was unconditional. When the prophets speak of the destruction of Israel and Judah there is a common thread of grace that is woven through their testimonies: God will preserve a remnant. There will always be a faithful few who will remain after God exercises judgment upon the apostate. This is not to say that the remnant remains untouched. They will experience the loss of their nation and its leadership and with it the only context for identity that they know. They will lose friends and loved ones as they are taken captive or killed in battle. They will lose their land and possessions as they are seized by the invading armies of Babylon. However, they will not be killed, and they will not be taken captive. They may be found hiding in caves, or in small isolated villages that escape the battle. Like them, Jeremiah himself will not be taken captive, that in itself could be an allusion to the lack of authority he held among the Jewish leadership at that time. Not only was Jeremiah's message ignored, the leadership in Jerusalem ignored him altogether. He was not recognized by Nebuchadnezzar as an important member of the Judean nation.
Those who Nebuchadnezzar and the Jewish leadership considered the "important" people were not necessarily those who God would consider the ones who were to be protected against the judgment of Judah. The ones who God would preserve would be those faithful few who maintained their love for the Lord while immersed in such an immoral and ungodly culture. We live in an equally immoral and godly culture today, yet God's remnant remains. Even when today's church runs the entire spectrum of commitment from apostasy to Spirit-led worship, there is a remnant of the faithful throughout. Sometimes the Lion, the Wolf and the Leopard come to devour the modern church when its flesh-led leadership introduce strife and chaos into the midst. Yet, God's promise to preserve the remnant remains. These souls may remain in the conflicted fellowship as they shed many tears and only hope that love will ultimately prevail in their midst. Others may recognize that the predators will not be overcome, and they move on to another fellowship. Still, crippled and ineffective, the church continues on. The church will never be fully defeated either from within or from without as God promises to preserve His remnant.
A time will come when we will all give an account for our deeds. When we look at the behavior of the last kings of Judah (and any of the kings of Israel) we might rally behind their demise, arguing that "they had it coming." As leaders of God's chosen people they led them away from God. They led them in the way of their own choosing, a way that was more characterized by the culture of the world than by obedience to the Word of God. However, James reminds us that those today who accept positions of responsibility in the kingdom of God on earth must do so wisely because theirs is the greater judgment (James 3:1). Taking control in a Christian fellowship should be done only with fear of the Lord and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. Such leadership can only take the form of servant leadership motivated by love. To do otherwise is to take control of the congregation away from the Holy Spirit who speaks through the hearts of all of its members, not just through a select few.
When we take the church where we want to go we are doing none other than "playing church." It looks like a church, sounds like a church, and acts like a church: at least according to the image that we perceive is appropriate. However such a "church" when devoid of the leadership of the Holy Spirit is only flesh-led, lacking the Spirit's power. Such congregations would not be characterized as being "on fire for the Lord." Rather, they are social clubs that base their existence on a Christian theme, copying what they think the church should be. We are then free to incorporate any manner of opinions on appropriate Christian behavior, establish legalistic rules and regulations, and decide who is worthy of being part of our club and who is not.
When the church is reduced to such a state, it is wandering close to the state of ancient Israel. Our study of Jeremiah's prophesy can serve as a wake up call to all of us to look into our own hearts, and into our own church fellowships and evaluate the true basis for our call. Are we "going to church" to fulfill a requirement of tradition, or do we gather together as Christians to celebrate our Love of God and worship Him in humility and truth? Do we see the church as an opportunity to receive personal gratification from the respect and laud we receive from others, or do we see the church as an opportunity to express gratification for what God has done for us? Do we see our church as a collection of social and entertainment programs that keep us busy and entertained, or is it a house of worship where it is God who is the center of it all?
Members of a very popular modern contemporary singing ensemble, Phillips, Craig, and Dean together experienced an awakening a couple of years ago when they realized that their performances were geared around Christian entertainment which in an of itself is certainly not harmful to the gospel. However, they also came to realize that they had become the center of that entertainment. In a dramatic and unusual move for such a group, they made the decision to never again allow the focus of their testimony to rest in themselves, but rather to work to assure that the focus of their work is always Jesus Christ. Their testimony was published in one of their songs when they stated, "It's all about You, Jesus. It's all about You." Is our worship all about Jesus, or is it about ourselves? Do we come to be entertained, or do we come to worship?
Let us seek to repent of our self-centered worship, and if need be, stop "playing church" because: It's all about You, Jesus.